Sgt. John Russell grew increasingly paranoid in the days before he killed five fellow U.S. service members at a Baghdad combat stress clinic, soldiers who knew him testified today.
His belief that his unit was trying to kick him out of the Army was one of the reasons his commander, Capt. Mark Natale, referred him to counseling instead of disciplining him for an insubordinate, expletive laden outburst in early May 2009.
If he could go back to that moment, Natale would not be so generous.
“If I would’ve known what I know now, I probably would have zip-tied his (butt) to the bench,” Natale testified in court at Joint Base Lewis-McChord.
Russell, 48, is facing a life sentence at a court-martial this week for murdering five men in Baghdad’s CampLiberty. He has already pleaded guilty to killing them, but Russell is fighting charges that the murders were premeditated.
His defense has not issued an opening argument. In the past, his lawyers have said he was suffering from post-traumatic stress and depression on what was his third Iraq deployment. They contend Russell received poor treatment from doctors who minimized Russell’s signs of distress.
Natale and a psychiatrist who attempted to counsel Russell just before the killings in May 2009 took the witness stand on the third day of the trial, depicting Russell as a lazy, unmotivated soldier who resisted outside help from his leaders and from behavioral health specialists.
“His performance was subpar,” Natale said. “He always had additional duties and responsibilities that he would pass off to other soldiers.”
Russell’s attitude degraded further when he learned a female soldier was pursuing a complaint against him for a sexual remark he allegedly made in her presence. Russell had tried to discipline that soldier for tardiness, and he grew convinced Natale and other leaders were siding with her.
Their dispute enhanced Russell’s feeling that his unit turned him until he snapped at Natale, and the officer sent him to seek out a therapist.
The last psychiatrist who tried to treat Russell in Iraq similarly characterized him as unwilling to pursue opportunities that would keep him in the Army, such as counseling or a transfer to a different unit. Russell wanted out of Iraq, period, the doctor said.
“He didn’t want to do anything that would keep him in theater longer,” psychiatrist Lt. Col. Michael Jones testified.
Russell first saw Jones on May 10 at the Camp Liberty combat stress clinic. Russell was already on a suicide watch in his unit, and had visited two different doctors over the preceding three days. Natale had taken the firing bolt from Russell on May 9 as a precaution against suicide.
The doctor diagnosed Russell with an anxiety disorder and prescribed an antidepressant medication after their first hour-long meeting. Jones thought Russell had “turned the corner” and would stick with his treatment.
Something happened when Russell returned to his headquarters at Baghdad’s Camp Stryker. Soldiers saw him rocking, and fuming. He went back to see Jones on May 11.
“I was barely finished glancing at the paperwork when he made some comment underneath his breath, ‘Now do you think I’m normal?’” Jones remembered.
Russell stormed out when Jones said he believed the soldier would be fine. Russell shouted suicidal thoughts and declared he had been mistreated by Army doctors.
He returned to the clinic about an hour later and shot to death Navy Cmdr. Charles Springle and the Army’s Maj. Matthew Houseal, Sgt. Christian Bueno-Galdos, Spc. Jacob Barton and Pfc. Michael Yates Jr.
Earlier today, a friend of Russell’s testified and gave the first description in court of the soldier seeing enemy fire. Former Sgt. Adam McKoy said he and Russell experienced almost daily mortar attacks on their forward base during their 2005 deployment to western Iraq. They kept up their spirits and played cards in their downtime.
Some of their fellow soldiers filmed Russell overnight on that tour. They found Russell crying in his sleep. A few soldiers teased Russell about it, McKoy said.